Lawmakers look to drill down on school building options

The lawmakers studying Idaho’s school facilities issues have a host of ideas — but a short amount of time.

So members of a House-Senate working group will spend the next couple weeks trying to pick their best options.

“The intent is to narrow this down, ideally to about three (ideas),” said Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, during a Thursday afternoon meeting of the Funding Construction of Public Schools working group.

The group began meeting in October to look at options to help finance school construction. Historically, that responsibility falls to local school districts, and the cost falls to local property owners.

But the debate could be shifting. With the state sitting on a record-setting surplus, education lobbyists have stepped up their push for state funding for facilities. Meanwhile, as many Idahoans clamor for property tax relief, districts continue to struggle to pass school bond issues.

Tuesday’s election brought the debate into focus. As all 105 legislative seats were on the ballot across Idaho, the Idaho Falls School District pursued a record-setting $250 million bond issue. The measure failed.

Several of the working group’s options are designed to allow districts to bypass those bond issues — or at least reduce the reliance on property taxes. The list includes a state revolving loan fund, state school building grants, and allowing schools to collect impact fees on new homes.

Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, suggested a back-to-basics approach: cookie-cutter designs for schools, which local school districts can spruce up with privately funded facilities for sports or extracurriculars.

That idea appealed to Rep. Jason Monks, who is co-chairing the committee with Lent. Monks pointed out that schools already use private money to upgrade their buildings, and said the state needs to focus on its constitutional requirement to provide free, common public education.

“We have to look at what our charter is,” said Monks, R-Nampa.

Rep. Matthew Bundy, R-Mountain Home, suggested prioritizing funding — helping districts that have older schools that are more costly to maintain.

The working group didn’t spend as much time talking about funding options. But outgoing Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, offered one $80 million-a-year option: plowing K-12’s share of the state land endowment into facilities. The endowment money is significant and consistent, he said, and it “would make a difference.”

On Thursday, the group received some funding advice from a hardline conservative group that has questioned state funding of public schools. The state should “extinguish” its vast and largely unspent stockpile of federal coronavirus aid before it puts any of its own money into facilities, said Fred Birnbaum, director of legislative affairs for the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

The committee also heard a request from Blake Youde, a lobbyist representing Idaho charter schools. The charters are receiving about $100 less per pupil from a state fund designed to offset building costs. The reason: The fund is tied to a formula that is based on public school bonds and levies, so when the public schools collect fewer dollars from voter-approved ballot measures, that affects what the charters get from the state.

Youde urged lawmakers to make up that difference.

The working group is likely to meet again in a couple of weeks — probably early the week of Thanksgiving — as lawmakers hope to have ideas ready for the 2023 legislative session that begins in January. Lent asked group members to go over their list of ideas and rank their preferences before their next meeting.

 

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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